Sunday, May 1, 2022

Topophilia: Love of Place

“Our genius is topophilia.” – M. R. O’Connor, Wayfinding

We are creatures naturally attuned to places.  From megacities to wilderness, forests to deserts, these frame our emotions and memories as nothing else can.  Our autobiographies—both body and brain—and our common human history have historically been shaped by the interface between us and the many environments we have made our home from the 37 billion acres of the earth’s surface (water makes up 90 billion more).  A third of this acreage is desert, a quarter is mountains, with only 1% urban—where half of us have now migrated to live.  In addition, tourism is a mainstay economy of much of the world’s states.

The past

“At the heart of successful human navigation is a capacity to record the past, attend to the present, and imagine the future—a goal or place that we would like to reach.”  In her reflections on our collective ability to move from one place to any other, in Wayfinding: The science and mystery of how humans navigate the world, M. R. O’Connor has explored difficult and remote territory herself: the Arctic, Australia, and Oceania.  Her mandate was to observe the way in which traditional cultures have adapted to the challenges of extreme weather and trackless terrain through inherited traditions of living with the land.   

The present

Both brain (focused on the hippocampus) and body have amazing coping mechanisms for doing this.  Including systems that take over our age-old perception and attention—beyond the intuitive skills of animals—that got us from one location to another and back for millions of years without maps or compasses.  The GPS revolution that has taken over the world so quickly has altered forever the way we think about travel and make our way around the world. For one thing, in the name of efficiency GPS orientation has limited the discovery and insight inherent in simply wandering and exploring for their own sake.  O’Connor’s exploration into the traditions of the pretechnological age see how they influence “looking at the world and thinking about space, time, memory, and travel.” 

The human ability to change environments instantly through jet travel or over thousands of years on our mass migration out of Africa is the background to our love of places, or topophilia, the term of the Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan.  I had the fortune of studying with him for a semester at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii years ago.  Tuan had a keen curiosity about the human/place relationship, including mental maps, memory built up as episodic journey narratives, and nostalgia for times welded to places.  These connections are the basis for re-creations in the hyperreality of theme parks.  The country’s most famous Main Street is a setting in the Magic Kingdom(s).  In the book of the same name, Tuan explains his concept: 

As a geographer, I have always been curious about how people live in different parts of the world.  But unlike many of my peer, the key words for me are not only “survival” and “adaptation,” which suggest a rather grim and puritanical attitude to life.  People everywhere, I believe, also aspire toward contentment and joy.  Environment, for them, is not just a resource base to be used or natural forces to adapt to, but also sources of assurance and pleasure, objects of profound attachment and love.  (1990 ed., xii)

“Navigating becomes a way of knowing, familiarity, and fondness.  It is how you can fall in love with a mountain or a forest.  Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps of exquisite memories.”  (O’Connor). 

Observing closely and thinking deeply about our many environments, and the ways we navigate them, is a key to self-knowledge, identity, and appreciation of how we interact with the spaces and places that shape us and our individual identity.  (Winston Churchill noted that we shape our buildings, then they shape us.)  In my own South Philadelphia neighborhood, long called the Italian Market, is changing in its look, feel, and population by the month.  It is a different place from the one I moved to in the early 1990s. 

The nature of my attachment to this place—my rootedness—is subject to this transformation in economics, taste, generations, and class mobility—the factors that define where we live and why we live there.  As pricing, neighbors, politics, schools, and style move far enough away from their origins, moving to another place becomes a real option.  “Being at home” in the world connotes comfort, safety, a hopeful future, and a real love of place—or else where our home is must change.  The nation is seeing sizeable shifts in mobility coming out of the Covid experience. Shifts in circumstance, even technology, evoke changes in the way we see our values reflected in our home base, the core connection to place.



Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Navigating Medicare


The problem

The end of each year brings over two months of insurance reassignment, the “open enrollment” period.  This is in addition to the regular nonstop Medicare signup as everyone turning 65 signs on to thousands of Medicare insurance programs.  Not just over-65s, but low-income (Medicaid), plus disabled, are eligible.  Four additional months of the year (ending March 31) are hunting season for Medicare Advantage plan-changers. 

Half the time the phone rings, that’s what’s on the other end: an invitation to enter a bewildering universe of costs and options without any rational or obvious route to navigating that world. 

This national decision-making marathon is the natural outcome of the “customer-first” trend in medicine.  And while that sounds empowering, it actually means that healthcare customers are increasingly responsible for decisions well beyond their education level or even their ability to ask for and organize information in strategic ways.  This goes along with being required to select treatments and compare risks, decisions for which patients have no training. 

Decision making

Decision-making science is an education in itself, and even when they are aware of the basics, few people can implement this skill in any systematic way.  Rather than rational procedures with principles and guidelines, most major decisions are 95% right-brained, emotional responses to hoped-for results to get a compound-complex process over with.

For most people, we understand pieces of the puzzle (but not the entire system) and just have to hope it all comes together for our future quality of life, health, and finances.  This is a poker game we know very little about when it comes to high-stakes betting.  What’s important is to distinguish between critical and less-critical decisions within the game.  And a good sense of probability calculations.  As Charles Duhigg puts it in Smarter, Faster, Better (2016), “How do we learn to make better decisions? .....Regardless of our methods, the goals are the same: to see the future as multiple possibilities rather than one predetermined outcome; to identify what you do and don’t know; to ask yourself, which choice gets you the best odds?” 

The options

What do the puzzle pieces look like?  Costs include premiums, deductibles, and copays, both within and outside the Medicare system or the Supplement or Advantage plan under review – and compared between plans.  Then there are all the time frames that define when care can be given, how often, and in conjunction with other treatments, along with any follow-up care.  Where will services be available?  Locations, clinic type (there are several, ranging between in-patient hospital, emergency centers, offices, urgent-care, ambulatory, observational, etc.).  Then post-procedure stays, long-term care for chronic cases like long Covid (which will be an upcoming major line item in the decision tree as a disability), at-home, nursing centers, and more. Watch for important exclusions and limitations in services, cost, and scheduling. 


Basic keys

These are led by three: does the potential plan cover my current providers?  Does it cover my medications? (Average is $1200 spent per year).  What will it cost or save—compared to what I pay now (premiums and copays)?  These are big-ticket decisions whose consequences usually become clear only after choices are made, procedures undergone, and the bill arrives.  The choice of insurance plan amounts to a critical partnership between the patient and a complex system that can’t be understood in advance of billing outcomes—when it’s discovered that your procedure wasn’t covered, or is attached to services uncovered. Sitting in the dental chair about to be fitted for a molar crown is no time to be told that porcelain is an extra $300. 

In parallel, when Mom’s health starts to fail, millions now realize they don’t really understand the full rulebook for her long-term care policy.  The percentage of long-term care payers who ever use their insurance is far less than half. Plenty of anguish and suffering results from failure to make the right choices, and that depends on getting good decision training.

The number of decisions, based on the Evidence of Coverage, is simply overwhelming.  There is no way that anyone can foresee what services and procedures and drugs they will need, even for the near future.  And quite difficult to construct equations that can show parallels between plans, as each line item can differ in coverage or scope as well as cost.  Is it better to have a higher deductible (copay) for a hospital visit, or a lower one with fewer benefits?  This is one example of the difficulty of comparing unequal line items.  And then there are dozens—hundreds—of other comparisons the customer can try to make without fully understanding what is being compared.  At the bottom line, there is a confused list that doesn’t carry over to rank two or three or four plans.  That means there is no confident bottom line for price—or for coverage, either.

Brain basics

Prospect theory says that we are more afraid of losses (about 2.4 x) than rewarded by gains.  Any single difference changes the equation; it can take hundreds of hours to puzzle out. This includes understanding what you don’t need to buy—expensive extras or guarantees that increase the bottom line without adding any value.  Does the monthly cost of a hospital indemnity plan (at $30-$60 and up) actually justify the expected hospital stays?  The actual number, of course, is an unknown quantity. 

You only find out how good or poor decisions were when the medical incident strikes and you need to use it.  Things will be fine—until they aren’t.  Either you can’t use the plan or what you need costs more than expected—sometimes thousands more. But hindsight is a hard way to learn. You need to know what obstacles could be involved in advance, and how to navigate these when they emerge.  This takes a sophisticated, experienced decision partner to review the options.  Pitfalls aren’t visible until you are falling into them (that’s their purpose).  Your new formulary may charge you $500/month for a drug that was free under the plan you had last year.  Providers change plans (your doctor could be one of them). And the plan you have now can always announce changes for next year—including their brand names, which leads to more confusion. Over half of the adults in a Bloomberg survey on debt reported that healthcare costs were the leading source (led by emergency-room visits), at over $10,000 for one in four.

There is an essential fact worth keeping in mind here: humans don’t like making decisions--under any circumstances.  Especially for high-stakes issues with complex rules we can’t understand or know how to apply, in a field based on medical, high technology, and complex financial systems. Once executed, the choice can’t always be reversed or undone in time to prevent costly further decisions.   Add this uncertainty to our ignorance of accidents and illness in the future. Decision avoidance could keep us from making very logical changes to coverage we now have but don’t understand at all well until we need it—and this unfamiliarity itself encourages active avoidance.  Ongoing discomfort with low Medicare understanding can result in ignoring the Open Enrollment period, just when choosers should be wading into the change process because their health and finances could benefit.   

Navigating the system

How do Medicare insurance plans advertise?  Each year mailbox and email are choked with flyers about supplemental benefits: health clubs, cooking classes, transportation, delivered groceries.  OTC allowances and home nurse wellness visits are largely diversions, a form of emotional window dressing.  These are actually the most immediately compelling and likeable features by which private insurance advertises, because they are the most viscerally appealing, as well as familiar (yoga, steak, gummy vitamins) the easiest to relate to.  But they are not anywhere near the top row in the decision process, a reversal that puts them top of mind while co-pays, major surgery, home nursing care, therapies, screenings, and lab tests are far more costly and important.  Reversing the hierarchy is an example of a clarifying technique in framing this decision.

In fact the entire Medicare process is based on emotional appeals: opening with reassurance about medical systems’ “caring,” along with saving money, discounts, free stuff, glamorous retiree shots, and confidence in agents who sound smart.  They sound especially smart because they are dealing in technical domains – medical and technological—where patients have limited experience and knowledge.  So patients are going to feel undereducated, which they can’t help.  It adds to the attraction of leaning on the expertise of the seller while undervaluing one’s own ability to make sound decisions. 

But the outcome is high-stakes and high price, and will determine whether and how much quality healthcare is going to turn out to be affordable.  Not that different from buying a luxury car with hundreds of features and not knowing how they work or whether they are even needed or desirable, nor whether they could increase driving insurance rates or repairs.  The emotional hook of “luxury medical goods” must be pointed out and examined more closely so they can be overridden by a more rational computation.  It can almost seem that Medicare is designed to be confusing and unclear—it would be hard to think of a system of decisions that is more so. (See “Do You Know Your Medicare Number?  Try Memorizing This,” the February 2021 blog on the complexity of the Medicare alpha-numeric member ID making it highly difficult to memorize.)

Sunday, February 27, 2022


 “Modern man has conquered distance but not time. In a life span, a man now--as in the past--can establish profound roots only in a small corner of the world."

--Yi Fu Tuan, Geographer, Topophilia


We have not just one command central (in America, home is more an action center than castle) but a far-flung network from neighborhood to local, regional, state, national and international territories.  Based on our body and the personal space that bubbles around it, our own personal territory consists of our web of errands, work, socializing spots (like Starbucks, the archetypal third space), school, church, club, post office, health club.  Culture defines these spaces as well as the weak and strong forces that protect us while we are in them and between them.  Standing in line at the bank or pharmacy on one hand, along with military defense of national borders on the other, show an equal respect for territory.

Even our steady gaze at a museum painting establishes ownership of the space in between, and deters others from walking in front of us as long as that gaze continues. Intensive territories, especially the home, are protection and shelter, relief from stress, and a huge reserve of memory to draw upon that helps to create our identity and maintain continuity over time (Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place).  The ownership, distribution, and applied understanding of the space and place require an entire cultural rulebook that is often just implicitly obeyed, above and beyond legal standards.  “Rather than relying on muscle,” Gallagher says, “we usually depend on law and custom to help us hold our ground” (187).  This cultural enforcement is the reason home invasion, or just a burglary, is so devasting—the entire citadel is transformed by the trauma in memory for all time. 

Establishing the concept of base camp for our early hunter-gatherer ancestors created a stable, safe, protected enclave, which allowed early people to venture out into the unknown and deal with their fears about new environments.  Our expansiveness was possible because the safe circle of the earliest campfire could become a symbol of security and the reassurance of a future anchored in the family and tribe.

Another factor was the basic space required to support human life based on meat as well as fruit, nuts, and roots: ten square miles per individual.  This number equals 300 square miles of range for a band of 30 people.  By contrast, baboons can live in a range of 15 square miles for 40, while howler monkeys need just a half square mile for 17.  Both apes and monkeys stay within their established range for a maximum of around 15 square miles of home range over their lifetimes.  Most animals remain in their home territory; it is nearly impossible to dislodge nonhuman primates from the place they grew up and learned through long experience.  Staying put backed by group defenses is a proven survival technique—until Man began the process of developing the desert, forest, and grasslands. 

This explains that once we ventured out of the African homeland, we quickly colonized the planet; we found a way of creating over and over again a campfire hearth that promoted ceremony, communication, trust, community, self-awareness with mutual support, an inviolable shared space—to build and maintain this “first zone” of cultural evolution. 

Human territorial history is the story of our species’ exploration and domestication of the planet, from cave-dweller to world domination.  We achieved this through cooperative group hunting of large animals, herd-following, tool and weapon-making, language, and division of labor between the sexes based on child-rearing. Exogamy—marriage outside the immediate group—and skill competition expanded the ranges of growing kinship groups as they sought more space and renewed resources. Refugee migration, much in the news, is an example of fleeing oppression as motivator. 

The mentality of belief reflects our wide historical range and personal space.  Belief is a form of territory claiming and defense in the abstract, a form of mental ranging, in a campaign of dominance of our ideas over others and other groups. We can hear it in expressions like digging our heels in, scoring yards, and ceding defensive positions. Our possessions (including land), as well as symbols like badges, flags, and signs marking out ownership and influence, are highly charged with the power of both defense and its naturally attendant aggression. 

M. R. O’Connor, in Wayfinding (2019), correlates our hippocampus health and grey matter volume with our cognitive mapping skills basic to navigating the environment. We have always been acutely aware of our territory: the limits to where we can go without the permission of others and what we are and are not free to do there.  The invisible limits of personal space as we move through our world – walking, in cars, climbing stairways, opening and closing doors, knocking, ringing, or clicking to win entry to old and new places – is a critical part of who we are and how we own or “lease” space shared with others, and negotiate an ongoing peace or conflict with them in the course of every day.  In fact, it is the learned experience of the rules of space—the culture of human geography--that make our social lives possible by avoiding the high costs of ongoing aggression.  Behind every activity (not just sports) is a rich overlay of conventions and contracts that have evolved to let us operate in space and time without violating the limits or ego or sparking group defenses.

The question of how people are able to build inclusive organizations requiring close cooperation while also preserving personal and kinship cohesion is one of the great paradoxes that makes humans unique.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Race and Science


“There is good news here.  The illogical, ever-changing, and contradictory reality of race means that we are not locked into the problem of racism.  We can escape this madness because we are the architects of it.”  -- Guy Harrison, “Science and Race,” 2020, in Skeptic (25:3)


The election of Barak Obama to the US Presidency did not mark the end of racism in America, as many might have hoped.  In fact, incidents such as George Floyd’s death seem to have escalated.  Meanwhile the DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) movement is picking up momentum as a way to create a new set of standards for the way race is handled in groups (especially at work).  Diversity has been officially adopted in an Executive Order signed by Biden in June 2021 (adding the term Accessibility, DEIA) as guideline for the federal workforce.

So it may be time to take a break in the race discussion to simply ask what racism as a motivating force that everyone knows about and feels deeply about, but almost no one can explain factually or scientifically.

This is because there is no scientific basis for race.  There are simply no categories that describe human differences that are consistent across time, geography, and genetics.  Scientific knowledge can point to no fixed descriptions, much less subspecies definitions, that are even useful as heuristic guidelines.  There are simply too many interactions and variations across the gene pool to hold race up as a fixed or even flexible idea. 

Which means that race is a social, political and cultural concepts, “common sense” that flexes across time and place, as in references to the “Italian race” and “Irish race” in the record of 19th-century immigration.  Color coding as the first ranking of people is a very recent development in race history.  And in fact the very first thing we notice about people is not their color but their gender.

Seeking solutions to “the race problem” begins with an understanding of what race is not.  It is not a biological difference between people – there is one, but it isn’t race, it’s gender.  Of which there are just two, male and female (by DNA, XY and XX) not dozens or hundreds, as the recent trend in virtue-citing “gender diversity” implies.  It is not a matter of subspecies identification.  All contemporary humans are homo sapiens sapiens, as we have been since 40,000 years ago. 

In his comprehensive study Race and Reality: What everyone should know about our biological diversity (2010), journalist Guy Harrison lays out the fundamentals of human unity and distinction, showing up the wide differences between the popular concept of race and the scientific view.

  1. All human beings are 99.9 percent genetically identical.
  2.  “Genetics demonstrates that humans cannot be divided into biologically distinct subcategories.” (American Society of Human Genetics)
  3.  “Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters.” (American Association of Physical Anthropologists)
  4.  The ‘racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth.” (American Anthropological Association)
  5.   The global population cannot be divided into biological races.  The reason is that observable features including hair type, nose shape, and skin color are spread too inconsistently for use as reliable markers. 
  6. Biological race categories vary across cultures.  The rules for inclusion and exclusion vary so widely that they are often contradictory.  This means that depending on the country, the same person can be assigned completely different racial identities. 
  7.  Not only does race change radically across cultures, but across historical periods.  The same groups assigned to one race category today would have a completely different assignment in the past. 
  8. Anthropologists in all subfields unequivocally reject the idea of race. A 2017 survey across the profession concluded “We observed consensus that there are no human biological races.”
  9. Race-group differences for inherited cognitive abilities (native intelligence) cannot be correlated to race, even in its cultural construction.  Too many environmental and social factors confound the issue of intelligence, even within a single racially constructed identity. 
  10. Neither athletic ability nor medical susceptibility can be assigned to racial identity.  Smaller genetic groups may manifest better sports ability or propensity for specific diseases, but these groups don’t generalize to larger race-sized samples.    

The race question should be translated to questions about cultural difference.  The reason is that culture is more central to human diversity, and seems to explain diversity better, than differences in physical or genetic makeup.  Ethnicity takes culture into account but doesn’t fully explain how the physical and the mental software of culture interact. This is the work of cultural analysis, which proposes the art and science of Cultural Competency as the way to understand and deal with both the causes and effects of racism and race bias.    


Friday, January 7, 2022

Giving Up to Go Forward


Dinosaur Hall, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History

“The problem is never how to get more innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.”  

                                                      -        Dee Hock, founder, Visa, Inc.


“…you can’t truly hope to beat alcohol until you give up all hope of beating alcohol.  This necessary shift in outlook generally happens as a result of ‘hitting rock bottom,’ which is AA-speak for when things get so bad that you’re no longer able to fool yourself.”

-        Oliver Burkemann, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021)


Dry January began in 2013 with Alcohol Change UK both as a public health campaign and to inspire thinking about drinking addiction.  The first of the famous Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Steps reads “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”   Only when the addict can admit that drinking makes any decent life impossible can the reality of addiction be faced at last—so that steps can at last be taken to devise a life that has a chance of working. 

Giving up on what is unsustainable doesn’t just apply to destructive drinking.  It is the foundation of an approach to problem-solving that begins with the destruction of what is not working. 

For AA members, the “admission statement” is designed to initiate what psychotherapists call a second-order change: a shift in perception (sometimes sudden, sometimes gradual) that results in a totally new appreciation of a situation or problem.  The second-order perception then allows for an entire range of solutions that were not even visible under the first-order viewpoint. It is from this newfound range that entirely new solutions can then be allowed to emerge. 

This is why “idea extinction” is so important:  it is the destructive act necessary to ridding ourselves of the delusion that the old idea can somehow be forced to become effective.  Nothing short of total annihilation can move the mind forward and away from what has proven a failed idea.  This is the “rock bottom” that’s as good as an education about maladaptive thinking.

Creative problem-solving consultant Steve Grossman explains why, for better ideas to be born and nurtured, worse ideas must be put to rest: not gently, but terminally and for good.  Once this occurs, the old ways of thinking can be buried.  Now when the problem is reopened and fresh, the technique of reversing assumptions can be applied.  Assumption Reversal exposes the unconscious assumptions supporting old solutions—which can then be examined and discarded.  The outcome: prospecting for value in completely new territory. AR builds from a reopened base: a redefined concept of the problem to be solved.  This entirely refreshed way of looking at the situation then can expose new potentials the newly opened mind can take full advantage of. 

Like a light suddenly switched on, old ways of resolving the problem are extinguished. This act creates the potential to turn products and services to unexpected and more successful uses and directions. (See his article “Extinction:  A Power Tool to Source New Ideas” (2019), He explains that “In helping businesses solve difficult and persistent problems, I have discovered that it is not any lack of ideas that prevents even very bright people from finding solutions. Instead, one of the biggest roadblocks to new and creative solutions is not conjuring new ideas but in ridding the brain of those already embedded.”

Examples of second-order thinking are the hallmark of invention and innovation.  Computers were assumed to be for scientists only, working in labs, and used to crunch numbers.  The total demand was projected at 100,000, worldwide, all scientists.  But the current computer as mass media in every home show what happens when they are programmed for words and images rather than calculation.  On the road, vans and off-road vehicles were for commercial and sporting purposes only before the minivan.  In 1983 Lee Iacocca saw the potential for a family vehicle with cargo and passenger space, saving Chrysler and shaping all car design into the future—and now making a comeback in sales.  (He also noted that focus groups are not the pathway to new concepts.) 

In education, before World War II, college-bound students were scholars, bound for academic careers in teaching and research, not the general public.  College is now an expected achievement of an extended learning curve.  Amusement parks were sketchy places far from family life and middle-class taste; their redesign as theme parks left Disney as the world’s top entertainment brand.  All of these major innovations in the information, transportation, education, and entertainment fields have transformed life.  They all involved a major rethinking about their purposes and possibilities.  Add the 3D printing of body parts, the space station, interstellar exploration, smart watches, Alexa, and even discount brokers (as everyone becomes a stock-market investor) to that list.

Failed products and initiatives suffer from an “optimism bias,” the conviction that every megaproject, ad campaign, or invention has a good chance of making it in the marketplace.  In reality, few building megaprojects meet their objectives of cost or demand, and 90% of all new products fail.  A short list of these projects includes Afghanistan (unmanageable starting with Britain’s invasion in 1830), the Segway (which didn’t replace walking), the Orkut social network (too early to reach critical mass), Disney’s America (the infrastructure politics went wild), the metric system, Prohibition, Kmart, the 2004 Athens Olympics (leading to Greece’s debt trap), the Chunnel (an ongoing net loss to the UK, along with Denmark’s Great Belt Tunnel), and Enron (too good to be true). 

These cases became caught up in a downward spiral of cost overruns and benefit shortfalls they couldn’t recover from to prove themselves viable. A perennial problem in project management is failure to look deeply at their assumptions at the front end, the far cheaper alternative to launching and then making expensive fixes as things fall apart.  The analysis of how people actually will use these things, and the conditions needed to make their use possible, is far more desirable at the fuzzy front end than putting out fires in a system doomed to fail.  Many times, proposals on the table need to be prematurely, permanently sunk to save millions or billions, so that proposals better conceived and designed could use that same funding to launch and succeed.   

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Speech and Unconscious Bias


“Humans have evolved over the millennia to care deeply about the way people talk—and to use this marker as a quick-and-dirty signal of who is us and who is them.”       

                                        --Katherine D. Kinzler, How You Say It (2020)

Human differences are really a critical part of our humanity, a fact gaining recognition and traction at work, school, and organized behavior in general.  This is the goal of DEI – Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion--as this principle seeks to inform human relations across the board.

The DEI movement is picking up speed and power not only in multinational business, where it first took root because businesses like IBM had global workforces, but in professional organizations, schools, nonprofits, companies and working groups of all sizes in the US and its multinationals. 

While gender and race, the startpoints of DEI, are well acknowledged, other points of difference like mental health states and (coming soon) Covid status as a long-term health issue are less well-known as human factors.  As points of difference, these factors are seen to unfairly tip the balance of power between people, their interactions, and opportunities.  But here is yet another aspect to be explored, and it has even more social clout: speech.

Speech differences between groups are far older than our concept of race difference.  While we can’t determine how far back spoken language extends in the human record, speech is one of the first dividers of groups.  Children are language discriminators who instinctively gravitate to speakers who sound like their parents.  Language categories are intrinsic to our ideas about “others,” especially since any language other than our own prevents communication to any degree.  Speech is perhaps the most basic marker of who we are and how we relate to others through our individual as well as group voice.  It is the ultimate social skill – yet its many variations create mental categories we can’t help noticing and reacting to.

Speech bias is so ingrained in our daily interactions that we don’t recognition it’s there – or that it is in face a prejudice that rules our opinions of others.  But this is more than personal preference for one “brand” of speech over another.  It drives our justice system, our social circles, education attainment, housing (where people can buy or rent), medical treatment, job application, careers, and the attainment of life goals.  Our speech quality and perception by others shapes the very goals we feel are possible to achieve. 

In the US, there is race—and there is language.  Not just languages other than American English as the US unofficial tongue (along with the second designate, Spanish) but variations like accent or dialect.  This scope would include Black or African-American English (AAE) dialect, as well as immigrated English speech with an accent (as in Chicano English).  Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas grew up speaking Gullah, the English creole spoken on coastal Georgia.  He clearly was able to do as many other professionals have done – “code-switch” between his home style for which he was ridiculed and another, mainstream standard of the bar and bench. 

Black children’s ability to code-switch between African American English (Ebonics) and standard English determines their school test scores for educational upward mobility.  It also sets the trajectory for “the places these kids might want to go, to learn, work, and live…you’re handicapping them by not teaching them the two codes,” says Julie Wahington, language specialist at George State.  Besides test scores, creating a level playing field is based on language even more than race, and speech discrimination is ongoing (Atlantic, April 2018, p. 20). 

Katherine Kinzler’s recent book How You Say It (Why You Talk the Way You Do and What It Says About You) points to speech as more important than race in the social hierarchy.  How people speak, no matter how they look, determines how much they are trusted, where they can live and work, where they go to school, and how they are treated by the justice system.  Their future prospects, and those of their children, depend on these factors, and how they are driven by accent, word usage, dialect, and related variant patterns measured again mainstream-educated (many would say White) standards.

This is all very unconscious.  We are constantly exercising our preferences for some kinds of speech over others, starting with preferring our mother tongue over all others.  We assign greater status to whoever we think is a better speaker and to the groups that speak as they do. Think of how socially advantaged a posh accent (English or MidAtlantic) can be, while also alienating as a class signifier-- versus a “street speech” repertoire.  National origin prejudice is protected by EEOC rules, but not the persistent accent associated with immigrant status. Linguistic bias is everyone’s unconscious prejudice, and we rarely consider why we like some people more than others simply based on the way they handle language. A whole field has opened up, signaled by Kinzler’s work, to answer this question.  Nonstandard and socially marginalized speech, as part of “linguistic discrimination should be part of our national and judicial consciousness, and we should make an effort to curb it in our legal system and our minds (p. 150).”

So it should be surprising that speech is not included on the DEI spectrum.  This gap ignores a wide agenda of social effects—those that point to status on the hierarchy of social opportunity and potential.  Speech bias indicates on ongoing major source of discrimination based on sound, not visual, cues.  Stigmatized speech links to discrimination by gender and race, national origin, mental capacity, age, and class – in ways that may shed light on those more established categories as well. 

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Diversity Plus

                                                                                          Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

             “Diversity of perspective and thought is essential to understanding
             and interpreting the law.”

                                                            --Law School Admissions Council

“Diversity and inclusion, which are the real grounds for creativity, must remain at the center of what we do.”  

                                                 --Marco Bizzarri – President, Gucci

 The percentage of women in US law schools, starting in 2016, rose to over 50%, and has been increasing since, now around 54%.  Blacks are 43% of the armed forces, but just two hold positions in the 43 top four-star ranks.  Just one percent are heads of Fortune companies.  Women lawyers make up 18% of the top Partner equity class.

The initiative DEI, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, is intended to address the fairness ethic so central to US life, in raising awareness of disproportionate ratios across the board, in companies, associations, schools, and board membership.  DEI goes beyond the diversity trainings, micro-aggression and inherent bias now active in HR departments.  One reason is the Harvard 2019 study concluding that these initiatives have been unproductive to counter-productive (Chang, Milkman, Gromet, et al.).  DEI is a wider mandate—not a formal program but a general theme—to extend beyond the training platform as a universal design principle.  This is a business function, operating alongside recruitment and retention, member / worker satisfaction, and policies and procedures.  It is long-term, comprehensive, and company-wide, and driven by a wider mandate to acquire Cultural Competence. 

Diversity as a social fairness principle began with the integration of the army by President Truman in 1948, then continued with the Civil Rights Act in 64, gay marriage in all 50 states (unimaginable before) was decided by the Supreme Court in 2015.  Gender identity has taken center stage in the 21st century, as well as mental health states, neurodiversity (autism and ADHD), and coming up, long-term Covid health conditions.  Although gender and racial discrimination were the initial concerns, these have exploded in a broad variety of other issues such as age discrimination.  California, as the leading diversity center of attention, is part of the 22% rate of marriages between ethnic groups in the Western US. 

This raises other fairness issues – Alan Bakke v. University of California (1978), which disallowed racial quotas in college admissions.  In our culture’s orientation to fairness, the playing field tilted back away in a reverse from elitism, to the extent that it is now a disadvantage to be a white male, as you will hear often in work circles.  This makes for a difficult situation for employers. The Art Institute of Chicago just fired its entire White, mostly female, 100 docents because they violated the diversity mandate just by being People Without Color.  Clearly this is a fairness issue. 

The concept of “Intersectionality,” however, offers the opportunity to search out and find other diversity categories, such as age and disability, or mental health states, that would work as diversity qualifiers.  When any individual can have multiple qualifiers, the number of possible identities works out in the tens of thousands.  Women of color who are lesbians and lower-class; white males who are disabled or veterans and Jewish; the list builds so that point systems for weighting one applicant against another must at some point need to become the standard for making decisions in hiring and promotion, or membership candidacy.  How else to decide between the Black male and the White female applicant for a senior position?

Why has diversity been so long in taking hold?  Tribalism, which has ruled human groups of hundreds of thousands of years, is our natural social preference for dealing with people we are related to, either closely or loosely. If others look, speak, and act like us, it fits our affinity for being able to read face and voice, the start of ability to predict what people are thinking and what they will do in any situation.  Dealing with other ethnicities and cultures makes this more difficult.  Added to the difference is a leading one: gender, as the only biological difference between people. 

Language different from your own is a major non-starter for communication.  Within your own language, however, language styling and accent are leading class markers, even above ethnic difference.  Hierarchy is a natural outcome of status distinctions like wealth, education, opportunity, competence, and social acumen.  Voice and literacy are markers for all the status signals we look for in deciding someone’s class. 

At the opposite end of the “familiarity scale” from tribalism is cosmopolitanism – the assumption of being comfortable and culturally consonant with a range of otherness – ethnic, class, education, positional on the hierarchy.  It is a sophistication always present in any culture as it reaches out to the world and welcomes what is different, including imported people and ideas.  In evolutionary terms, we were hunter-gatherers for most of human history, while only recently agriculturalists and town-dwellers.  Now over half the world live in cities, and this share is predicted to be far higher into this century.  Ancient Rome hit one million in 133 BCE; London was the first modern city to reach that number not until 1810, New York in 1975.  Technology and communications have made possible megacities of over 10 million, of which China has the most.  

Diversity is the future with the expansion of global industries, migration, communication, and identity.  The first companies to become diverse in their makeup were the multinationals like IBM, the subject of a famous study of power distance by Geert Hofstede (1980).  Gradually but with increasing speed, companies at all levels are picking up the slack in who they hire, nurture, and promote into leadership as a growth strategy.